With their Family Computer (Famicom), Nintendo proceeded to dominate the market throughout the entirety of the third console generation. The console proved to be such a success, it managed to revitalize the North American gaming industry after it crashed in 1983. Dubbed the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) aboard, the console was responsible for injecting gaming into the mainstream. However, during the life of the Famicom, Nintendo gained two new rivals. First, NEC Corporation launched the PC Engine – internationally known as the TurboGrafx-16 – in 1987. Shortly thereafter in 1988, Sega launched the Mega Drive – rebranded the Genesis in North America. Although its launch titles had difficulties standing out from the competition, it was clearly a piece of technology superior to the Famicom with a graphical presentation that emulated arcade games in the latter half of the 1980s.
Masayuki Uemura, the Famicom’s designer, realized he needed to come up with something to surpass his lauded invention to ensure his company remained relevant, and thus made it so. In 1990, the Famicom’s successor, the Super Famicom, was launched. Nintendo realized it wouldn’t be enough to just continue their big-name franchises on this new platform. If consumers were under the impression the Super Famicom offered only a superior graphical presentation, they likely wouldn’t have been interested in purchasing it. They needed something to prove that the console was to offer experiences simply not possible on the aging Famicom software.
To this end, Nintendo formed a team consisting of various members of the Research and Development divisions. The team was named Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development (Nintendo EAD). Under the leadership of producer Shigeru Miyamoto, the team created three games within fifteen months of the Super Famicom’s inception. One was Super Mario World – the official sequel to the universally praised Super Mario Bros. 3. The second was F-Zero, a fast-paced racing game. The last of these games, however, would be something the medium had seen only a few times by 1990: a flight simulator. Named Pilotwings, this game was released one month after the Super Famicom’s launch. The console then proceeded to debut in North America the following year where it was renamed the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES). Pilotwings was highly regarded upon release and is still considered one of the console’s premier titles in retrospectives. How was it able to grab the attention of consumers and critics alike back in 1990?
Analyzing the Experience
The main character of this game is a hopeful pilot attending a school called the Flight Club. For those who have always wanted to fly, this organization is a dream come true. It is open to anyone with enough passion, and offers four different courses: flying a light plane, skydiving, operating a rocketbelt, and hang gliding. In order to obtain certification, the player must pass the instructor’s test with enough points. If the protagonist succeeds well enough, he may find himself with the opportunity to obtain the highly desirable Pilot’s Wings.
Your first instructor is Tony. With his course set in a sprawling desert, he teaches you how to pilot a light plane and skydive. The game eases players into piloting the light plane by starting them off in the middle of the sky.
From there, you must guide the plane down a guide path of orbs. This guide path tells players through gameplay what they need to do in order to successfully land the plane. Just like in real life, you must make the plane descend gradually. If the pitch is too low, the nose will make contact with the ground. Similarly, attempting to make contact with any surface other than the runway will destroy the landing gear if the plane is moving too quickly. For that matter, the wings must also run parallel to the ground. If any of these rules are not observed, you run the risk of crashing.
Regardless of what outcome you achieve, your performance is then graded based on the lesson’s criteria. For the first light plane lesson, the number of points you achieve depends on the time it took for you to complete the event, where on the runway you landed, the angle of the plane as it touched down, and how many segments of the beam you made contact with. Failing to land properly will cause you to forego any time, accuracy, or angle points you would normally have received. As one would expect, landings that run parallel to the runway and stop in the center score the most points.
The other event available in the first flight area is skydiving. The goal is simple enough. After being flown 3,800 feet in the air, your character then jumps out of a plane. During your descent, you must guide your character through rings. The rings give the player a nice bonus, but most of the points you can score in this event come from the landing. Similar to the light plane, your landing is scored based on accuracy and speed. If you fall too quickly, you run the risk of landing improperly. Accuracy points are far more obvious in how they’re awarded in skydiving. You’re made to land on a target and by landing in the center, you score the full seventy points.
The second flight instructor is Shirley. Under her guidance, you learn to operate the rocketbelt. The rocketbelt is, in actuality, a fully maneuverable jetpack. The “B” and “A” buttons are used to activate the rocketbelt’s thrust at two different levels of power. In these events, you must guide your character through all of the rings before landing. The stronger thrust is ideal for navigating your character through the rings as quickly as possible while the weaker thrust is better suited for when you’re attempting to land. Unlike in skydiving, you cannot ignore the rings; attempting to land early will deduct two points from your score each time. The rocketbelt event uses the same target as skydiving, though landing in the center is generally much easier with this much control over your vehicle. To help your character land, you can press the “L” and “R” buttons to change views. Normally, the view faces forward, but by pressing one of the two buttons, it will shift downwards.
Finally, the third flight instructor, Lance, teaches you about hang gliding. Similar to the rocketbelt, hang gliding involves fulfilling a special condition before you attempt to land. For the first lesson, you must ascend to 500 feet before attempting to land. This is done by riding an upward thermal current. If you ignore these conditions, you will earn zero points. The hang glider has its own target upon which you must attempt to land, though you generally aren’t penalized as severely for landing outside of it as you are for other events. Once again, your landing is graded based off of accuracy, angle, and time.
Originally released in 1990, Pilotwings could be considered one of the earliest titles to attempt fully three-dimensional gameplay. The truth of how Nintendo accomplished this feat is a little more complicated than that. In reality, Pilotwings is every bit as two-dimensional as the other Super NES games released in 1990. With Super Mario World, Nintendo demonstrated a presentational technique dubbed Mode 7 in the climactic showdown against Bowser. Utilizing the machine’s hardware, the team could rotate and scale graphics based on scanlines, creating the illusion of depth by transforming background layers into a two-dimensional, horizontal plane. However, the illusion only went as far as affecting backgrounds; sprites remained completely two-dimensional.
Owing to the nature of its gameplay, Pilotwings uses Mode 7 far more extensively, making it quite the technical achievement in 1990. Throughout the 1980s, there were many games that attempted a first-person perspective when making players navigating mazes, but one could only turn at ninety-degree angles. Pilotwings, on the other hand, affords players a much broader degree of movement. Subtle taps on the control pad would turn the vehicle you’re commandeering slightly rather than at fixed intervals.
An easy conclusion to draw if one unfamiliar with the game attempted to research it would be that the controls likely haven’t held up well. It’s an understandable one – with three-dimensional gameplay having not solidified by this point in history, developers couldn’t possibly know what does and doesn’t work. The surprising thing is that the controls in Pilotwings are perfectly serviceable. It is admittedly a bit strange in hindsight attempting to use a control pad in this game. This is because a control pad only has two modes: pressed and not pressed. Although not ideal for a game that requires precision movement, the binary controls are easy enough to acclimate oneself to with enough practice. During the light plane, skydiving, and hang glider events, your character is always moving forward. What you’re accomplishing by using the control pad is adjusting the direction of his fixed movements. This does take a bit of getting used to because most racing games necessitate players to hold down the button assigned to the gas pedal rather than maintaining a constant speed, but it isn’t too difficult.
As you attempt to skydive, you may have espied a moving target with the number “100” printed on it a fair distance away from the bullseye. As advertised, landing on this target will automatically award the player 100 points – other factors such as speed and the number of rings you passed are ignored. Not only does landing on the moving target award you 100 points, you are then given a chance to procure even more.
By successfully skydiving onto the moving target, your character dons a penguin suit and is made to jump off of a diving board and into a pool. Unlike in the rest of the game, landing in the water is a good thing, for doing so will award the player bonus points. There are three different patterns the pool can have, but the basic idea is the same as it is in skydiving – you get more points by landing in the center. Some patterns have a smaller, isolated pool that awards several points if the player character successfully jumps into it, creating an interesting risk versus reward scenario. Do you aim for the larger pool to get an ensured amount of smaller points or attempt to jump into the smaller one for a practically ensured certification?
You can’t receive a bonus chance through the light plane lessons, but there are two different ones that can be accessed by fulfilling certain conditions in the rocketbelt and hang gliding events. The rocketbelt event’s conditions are exactly the same as those for skydiving. Once you’ve fulfilled the objective, you must land on the moving target. By the time you can begin flying the rocketbelt, the moving target has a much wider path, making it trickier to land on, though the rocketbelt is by far the easier vehicle with which to accomplish such a feat.
Once you have done this, your character is placed in a bird suit. By bouncing on the panels bearing the letter “P”, you can gain either five or ten points. Your character is always moving forward, so it’s not possible to land on more than one panel in a given row. After striking three panels, your character then jumps on a launch pad, for a chance to land in the water in front of him. Having the same idea as the high dive, you can cap off the minigame by landing in a target within the water. Again, the idea is to aim for the center. It’s important to know the second-smallest concentric square actually yields the fewest number of points, making for another interesting risk/reward assessment you must quickly calculate before your character hits the water.
Although it’s not immediately obvious, it is possible to earn a bonus chance from the hang gliding event. Because attempting to land on a moving platform while hang gliding would be nearly impossible, the developers made the task much simpler. You must ignore the hang glider goal and attempt to land on the target you would attempt to touch down upon while skydiving or flying the rocketbelt. Not coincidentally, hang gliding is only performed in areas in which the target is small and surrounded on all sides by water. The third lesson includes two such targets with the idea that the smaller one awards more points in the rocketbelt event. It doesn’t matter when one you land on while hang gliding; both will give you a chance to partake in the associated bonus game.
In this minigame, your character dons a different bird suit. You must repeatedly tap the “A” button to launch him from the beach. The faster you tap the “A” button, the longer he stays in the air. Below him is a large body of water. When he eventually lands in the water, you are awarded the number of points based on the last line he passed.
As you may have noticed by now, the single greatest thing about Pilotwings is the sheer variety to it. Even quality games of this era had a tendency to provide one-note experiences. This hardly mattered as long as the core mechanics were expertly implemented, but one could safely bet that the first stage of a given game was indicative of what to expect from thereon in. Pilotwings, on the other hand, had five main styles of play with an additional three awaiting those skillful or persistent enough to find them. One might suspect that this would stretch the experience too thin, but in reality, they all function really well. Each vehicle functions fairly realistically, forcing players to consider different aspects when flying them. The light plane may be the fastest vehicle, but it lacks the maneuverability of the rocketbelt. Landing the hang glider is a little more difficult than skydiving onto a target from a plane, but in the former event, you can maintain your altitude for a longer time with the thermal currents. All of these factors are presented to the player very organically, allowing them to weigh their options as they play.
Despite the game’s sheer amount of ambition, there are a few ideas that don’t quite work. Ironically, despite being a lot of fun of play, one of the biggest problems with Pilotwings concerns the three bonus minigames. It’s not because they’re poorly implemented – in fact, I would argue they work a little too well. This is because scoring any number of bonus points in these minigames completely destroys any semblance of challenge the experience may have otherwise presented. Landing on the moving target in skydiving is a little difficult after the first flight area, but it’s easily accomplished with the rocketbelt – even after shrinking it in size for subsequent lessons. For that matter, landing on the target while hang gliding is deceptively easier in the fourth flight area than it is in the third due to having a larger surface area. Getting three bonus chances in a single run is a tall order, but if you get even two of them, your certification is practically a foregone conclusion no matter how many points you need.
The reason this matters is because the manner in which bonus stages work is completely at odds with what the game is tries to do. This is a game in which the main character is attempting to obtain a pilot’s license, theoretically necessitating a lot of skill on his part. He must fly through as many rings as possible while ensuring he goes for the smooth landing every time. The bonus stages have the potential to make all of that completely meaningless. It is entirely possible to pass any of these lessons despite crashing the plane each and every time. Your blatant disregard for basic safety protocol means nothing as long as you can successfully jump into a pool wearing a penguin suit. Pilotwings is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a game driven by its story, but this disconnect is too jarring to ignore.
Said disconnect can potentially rear its ugly head when you clear the fourth flight area. After successfully reviewing what you learned in the previous three lessons with Instructor Big Al, you receive some bad news. The other three instructors, Tony, Shirley, and Lance, while en route to Inazu Island, have been captured by the drug lords known as the EVIL syndicate stationed there. Inconveniently, the army cannot attempt a rescue of their own, so it’s up to you to carry out the task instead. For this mission you are made to fly an attack helicopter.
From here, Pilotwings turns into a shooting game. The closest game one could compare it to at the time was Xevious – one of Namco’s most famous arcade titles. It stood out from other shooter games in their catalogue such as Galaga in that you had to contend with enemies on the ground in addition to the air. You could drop a bomb on ground enemies while using standard shots to dispatch airborne ones. For the helicopter mission in Pilotwings, you only have to worry about enemies on the ground. A set of crosshairs is always pointing at the ground, and by pressing the “L” or “R” buttons, you can shoot a missile to hit that section. The helicopter has a targeting system of sorts that makes a sound when an enemy turret is in the crosshairs.
This mission is the textbook definition of a mixed blessing. On one hand, I really enjoy that the designers were willing to implement such a stage in the first place. The game leading up to this point was a lighthearted, fun-filled experience. Even if you fell into the ground without opening your chute or wrecked the plane badly enough for it to explode, your character would always survive and your instructors invariably had a snarky comment to complement your spectacular failure. This is absolutely not the case when you’re flying the helicopter. You go from merely taking lessons at a school to finding yourself in the midst of a battlefield. Suddenly, failures go from humorous to horrifying as you watch your helicopter go down in flames and break into pieces upon impact.
On the other hand, I ultimately believe the helicopter mission to be the single worst designed portion of the game. This was not a game optimized to handle action elements, and attempting to pilot the helicopter demonstrates why. By far the biggest problem is that the helicopter is extremely difficult to maneuver. You will have to deal with enemy shots coming from nearly every conceivable direction as you near your destination. Not only that, but later turrets shoot far more frequently and can even be camouflaged in the forests. As a single hit is enough to destroy the helicopter, one can see why this would be an issue. You either have to swerve around constantly or take out one turret at a time. The former approach makes it difficult to hit any of the turrets while the latter tactic is extremely time consuming. There is no time limit per se, but you do need to be careful not to run out of fuel.
What also doesn’t help is that, similar to how the bonus stages can destroy any semblance of challenge the lessons present, there is a trick to complete the helicopter mission with minimal fighting on your part. Your goal is to land on the EVIL Syndicate’s helipad and rescue your instructors. However, the game only cares if you land on the helipad. You could have dutifully taken out all of turrets or only the ones preventing access to the helipad. Although the surrounding turrets theoretically make this task difficult, there is nothing stopping you from landing in a secluded area and making a beeline for the helipad at a very low altitude. As long as you destroy the turrets blocking your method of ingress and keep out of the range of the others, you should be alright. It does create a rather humorous situation in which the intact turrets seemingly give up, being completely in awe of these avant-garde tactics.
Once you have completed the helicopter mission, you are made to go through the previous four flight areas a second time, but with an interesting twist on each one. Snowfall has made the desert runway much more difficult to land upon, a rainstorm recently hit the second flight area, and the remaining two stages involve having to contend with strong winds and limited visibility. Although the flaws evident throughout the rest of the experience remain, I give the team credit for implementing these gimmicks. In doing so, they avoided the common pitfall associated with reusing stage designs for later stages by presenting new challenges to the players. It’s not quite enough to mitigate the game’s shortcomings, but they do not come across as pointless filler.
Drawing a Conclusion
Although it wouldn’t be a few more years until true three-dimensional gaming was feasible, Pilotwings has its place in history as a precursor to one of the medium’s most significant revolutions. The fact that it was made by a major developer and sold well ensured its innovations would catch on. It wasn’t the first of its kind, for Microsoft’s first Flight Simulator installment predates it by eight years. However, as a result of the development team reducing the gameplay to its most important components and releasing the product on a mainstream console, these forward-looking ideas managed to reach a large audience. Though not truly presented in three dimensions, the success of Pilotwings signposted to everyone in the industry that there was so much more room for the medium to grow.
As a blueprint for what gaming would become, one might wonder how such a title holds up. Personally, I think that all things considered, it has actually aged reasonably well. Controlling a character in a three-dimensional space with the two-dimensional control pad takes some adjusting to, but the game gives you plenty of time to do so before throwing the real challenges at you. Having said that, Pilotwings is, in a lot of ways, very similar to the original Super Mario Bros. It served as a basic outline for three-dimensional gameplay, so it’s only natural for other artists to improve upon what Mr. Miyamoto and his team set out to do. On top of that, with its heavy emphasis on presentation, it’s easy to get the impression Pilotwings is a mere technical demonstration for the Super NES’s capabilities. That the entire experience can be completed in the course of an afternoon by a skilled gamer certainly doesn’t help matters. Combined with its inconsistent difficulty curve, Pilotwings is a somewhat tricky recommendation. I can definitely encourage historians to try it out so they can appreciate its influence, and even a curious enthusiast may find charm in its simplistic nature. Regardless of how well it may or may not have aged, Mr. Miyamoto and his team deserve a lot of credit for braving uncharted territory in a time which the medium only just grasped the intricacies of two-dimensional gameplay.
Final Score: 5/10